Exhibition: Cool for hamsters

This year's John Moores is skewed strongly towards the minimal of Holbein's 'Ambassadors',not inevitable. That's the message
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The Independent Culture
The first prize in the biannual John Moores Liverpool Exhibition has been won by Dan Hays, whose Harmony in Green is a neat, not particularly inspiring picture of a hamster cage. Hays (born 1966) was first noticed a couple of years ago, when the Arts Council bought two of his little pictures of guinea pigs. They were in the recent touring show "Ace!", and Hays has been in a number of other exhibitions. So he's successful, but nobody would call him a leading British painter, let alone a magisterial one. As sometimes happens in the Moores, the judges have fixed on a prize- winner who seems to be outside the mainstream.

Perhaps they turned to Hays because the rest of their show is somewhat predictable. The Moores usually gives a place to zany, amateur or unexpected pictures. Not this year. Every single contributor went to art school, and lots of them did post-graduate courses. This is the first time in its long history that the Moores has been so professional. It's also a small show by the usual standards. Around 40 paintings are hung: usually there are 60. Since there were 1,800 entries, the selection might have been more generous, especially to outsiders. Anyway, the people who did get into the show seem to know exactly what they're doing.

Every time a picture steps out of line, that step is calculated. Hays's painting, for instance, has an oddball subject, but is coolly managed. It reminds me of Richard Hamilton. Harmony in Green is also reminiscent of other Sixties paintings, as are a number of other canvases by, for instance, Maggie Smith, Tim O'Riley, Nick Gammon, Roger Kelly and David Leapman. All were born between 1959 and 1972; all are painting in the avant-garde manner of the decade in which they were born. Furthermore, the look of their work suggests that they are more indebted to printmaking than to painting.

Is this a general trend? One can never be sure whether any Moores show reflects the latest mood. In my view that's a strength of the exhibition. If it always tried to be up-to-date it would lose its geniality and broad outlook. Of course, much depends on the judges. This year none of them were painters. They were the journalist Louisa Buck; Mel Gooding, who writes lots of introductions to artists' catalogues; Declan McGonagle of the Irish Museum of Modern Art; Liverpool-born George Melly; and the conceptual artist Cornelia Parker, who is in the current Turner Prize exhibition at the Tate. Very different people, but they do seem to have a collective preference for clean rather than messy or improvised painting.

They have also favoured minimal painting: that is, canvasses with a single colour, or very little painterly incident on a generally immaculate surface. Some of these paintings have a genuine distinction. Gwen Hardie's Cleave is a prize-winner (there are 10 subsidiary prizes besides the one given to Hays), and rightly so. Martin McGinn's Chandelier is empty and melancholy, but there's poetry in its emptiness. Two other minimal painters are Edward Chell and Gina Burdass. There's a true love of beauty in Burdass's painting, which has marble dust mixed with its acrylic. A nice idea. But the trouble with marble is its inherent greyness. Minimal painting so often goes toward grey - all the artists I've just mentioned have made grey pictures - that one feels sorrow at so much loss of colour.

Whatever happens in new art generally, with its installations, videos and so on, painting is still the only art form that's capable of fully expressive colour. I mention this obvious fact because no one else ever does, and because I'm fed up with art adminstrators who say that painting is outmoded. The Liverpool show would be better if it had included more painters who think about colour above all other things. If we exclude the grey minimalists, there are only two such artists in the Walker Gallery: Sybille Berger and Callum Innes. Berger uses four wide bands of different colours. Here is a bold, even aggressive work. You can look at it many times and it does not become less unsettling. Innes's Exposed Painting, Cadmium Orange on White, 1995 is the best painting in the exhibition. Alas, it does not reproduce well. Before the canvas itself, one feels how sensitive Innes is. He feels colour and touch as no other exhibitor does. Innes is related to minimal painting, but gets wiser and more delicate as he goes along. Delicacy seems to be his path. I doubt if he'll ever use a full red ...

Other fine paintings are by Peter Ellis, Basil Beattie and Alan Brooks. Ellis presents abstract black-and-white whorls. He's been doing this manner of painting for some time now, with better and better results. One day he'll really hit the mark. I believe in Ellis. Unlike many other people in this exhibition, he paints from personal and obviously heartfelt compulsion. Beattie (who has nearly won the Moores first prize on two occasions) has a more dramatic painting than any other canvas in the show. Brooks intrigues me. At first sight, his picture is both scratchy and scribbled. Then you find there's more in it than at first appears. The scratches lie below the scribbles. Neither mode would add up without the other.

The future of the John Moores Exhibition, 40 years old this year, appears to be in doubt. It is said that its work has been done. But I hope the Walker Art Gallery and the Moores Family Trust will continue to encourage painters of all sorts. The simple fact that there were 1,800 entries demonstrates that painting is the favoured medium for most people who call themselves artists. Can you imagine 1,800 people sending in to a biannual show of videos?

Liverpool Walker (0151 478 4199), to Feb 1998.